Mother of Issiah Downes Suing San Francisco for $50 Million

Categories: Crime
Issiah Downes in better days
The mother of Issiah Downes, an inmate in San Francisco County Jail who suffocated while being restrained by sheriff's deputies, is now suing the city for $50 million, arguing that city employees killed her 6-foot-1, 307-pound son by using excessive force.

Last month, the medical examiner concluded that 31-year-old Downes' death was a homicide from "probable respiratory arrest during prone restraint, with morbid obesity." The case is still under investigation, and the district attorney hasn't charged anyone. Yet Downes' mother isn't wasting any time. In the suit filed Friday in San Francisco Superior Court, Downes' mother, Esther, alleges that the sheriff's department knew its restraining policies used on her son were dangerous, killed him, and conspired to cover up the true cause of his death.

Downes, a diagnosed schizophrenic, had been incarcerated March 9, 2009, shortly after which he reported he wanted to kill himself. He subsequently tried to gouge his left eye out in response to voices he was hearing, and blinded himself in that eye. And yet, according to the suit, Downes' mental state had been improving and he'd been participating in group therapy sessions.

But the lawsuit paints a macabre portrait of the events at the county jail at the Hall of Justice on the night of Sept. 7, 2009:

A sheriff's deputy had turned off all the TVs in the unit in response to Downes' TV set being turned up too loud. Downes protested the move, telling the deputy to allow everyone else to continue watching TV. The deputy called for backup and reported that Downes was trying to incite a riot. More deputies arrived to move Downes to an adminitratvie segregation unit, clamping two sets of handcuffs on his wrists. 

Downes complained that he needed his medication before he could go to the new unit. More deputies arrived, and held Downes face-down on the floor and shackled his legs to one another. Others put pressure on him by lying on top of him and putting their knees on his neck, restricting his air flow. Downes gasped for air and told the deputies he couldn't breathe.

While deputies moved Downes to a safety cell -- either by walking or carrying him backwards -- they flexed his head downwards in an "asphyxiating restraint position" until Downs dropped to ground, claiming he was unable to continue. Once in the safety cell, the deputies lifted his arms behind his back and sat on his back or and pulling his legs up from the floor in what's known as a "figure 4" restraint.

Medical staff in a medical room adjacent to the safety cell reported hearing moaning, and one nurse left the office to see what was happening, but "made no effort to intervene or evaluate the prisoner."

At 6:20 p.m., "nearly and hour and a half" after Downes was first moved from his original jail tank, a senior sheriff deputy knocked on the medication room door, saying Downes had stopped breathing. The nurse who responded found that Downes, indeed, had stopped breathing and had no pulse. He was pronounced dead by paramedics 13 minutes later, at 6:33.

Downes' mother is suing for a bevy of complaints, including wrongful death, excessive and unreasonable force, assault, battery, illegal use of safety cell, failure to provide medical care, failure to adequately staff and supervise jail staff, retaliation for protesting unconstitutional and unlawful jail conditions, conspiracy and obstruction of justice, and violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (as Downes was both morbidly obese and a diagnosed schizophrenic.)

Esther Downes is suing for $50 million in general damages, in addition to punitive damages, funeral and burial expenses and other damages, as well as revisions in county jail policies.

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